Pros: Beautiful, immersive, taut mystery with fascinating historical underpinnings
Cons: Takes a few pages to get into if you’re lacking the background
Rating: 5 out of 5
After reading Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others recently, I was eager to read The Grave Tattoo. Unlike Torment it’s a stand-alone novel, not part of one of McDermid’s series.
In The Grave Tattoo, our story begins when a very old and tattooed body is found in a British peat bog. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham wonders if the body might be that of Fletcher Christian, and if it could lend credence to her theory of a missing Wordsworth poem, one no one has seen before, regarding the truth of the events surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty. One of her colleagues, Dan, convinces her it’s worth taking some study leave to find out.
That just leaves her with one problem: young Tenille, a brilliant but very poor thirteen-year-old girl with an interest in poetry who lives in the same building as Jane. Tenille’s aunt has been bringing home a new boyfriend who’s clearly interested in Tenille, and Jane doesn’t want to leave until she knows Tenille is safe. She visits Tenille’s estranged father, a local criminal, and unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that’ll result in Tenille fleeing to join Jane in the rural lands of the Lake District. Unfortunately Jane has problems of her own dogging her studies: her list of people to interview in search of the missing documents seems to have become the game plan of a murderer. Each time she interviews another aging local, they die shortly thereafter. Soon the police suspect her of all sorts of things, including harboring Tenille and murdering the locals.
Jane’s hope lies with Dr. River Wilde, who’s come to town to examine the peat body, and who has become close to the detective investigating the murders. And once again, she may have to put her trust in Tenille’s gangsta father to clear the girl’s name. To make things even harder, however, her ex-boyfriend Jake has arrived and is trying to use his connection to her to get to the manuscript first—after all, it could be worth millions.
Being familiar with neither day-to-day Britishisms nor much of Wordsworth’s history and work, it occasionally took me a little time to settle into my stride. That said, it’s a testament to the natural flow of Ms. McDermid’s prose that I found it so remarkably easy to settle into something so foreign to me at all, let alone so quickly. She beautifully conveyed the feel of the inner-city slums vs. the rural Lake District through the vivid scenery, the rhythms of characters’ speech, and the brief snippets of historical prose interspersed throughout.
One of the things I love most about McDermid’s writing is her fully-fleshed-out characters. She indulges in what for most writers would be an unusually large cast of characters in her books, and yet each one is complex and interesting. Even side characters have their own relationships and viewpoints and histories; I never feel that someone made an appearance as a plot device, nor do relationships get treated as plot devices or formulae. For example, usually a main character such as Jane would develop a romantic relationship over the course of a story such as this, yet she doesn’t, and that seems reasonable and natural and the right thing for her. On the other hand, several side characters do develop relationships of one type or another, where normally that kind of depth wouldn’t be spared for non-central characters. It results in a web of relationships and interactions that feel wholly natural rather than planned out by an author, as though McDermid simply stepped aside and allowed her characters to tell us their own story.
The mystery, too, is quite fascinating. It starts out as a question of who the mysterious body might be and whether Jane’s speculative document exists, and slowly becomes a murder investigation. McDermid is one of the better mystery writers out there in my opinion; while at times I thought I had the murders figured out, McDermid managed to sow enough doubt in my mind that I could never be entirely sure. And while I know virtually nothing about Wordsworth, she made the mystery of his potential missing poem and the circumstances surrounding it absolutely fascinating.
Standard disclaimers: While Grave Tattoo isn’t the gritty, bloody police-procedural mystery that, say, McDermid’s Tony Hill novels are, what small amount of blood there is, is presented bluntly and straightforwardly. There’s a small amount of sexual content as well, presented in a similar manner. Also, McDermid is the rare author who works same-sex relationships into her books in a very straightforward and natural manner, simply making them a part of her characterization much like any other trait.